Experience: I Went to the Cereal Cafe

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As anyone who follows the news will know, there is now a cafe in Shoreditch, and it only sells cereal. As far as I can tell, from looking both at twitter and the newspapers, this was the most important news story of last week: forget police brutality, US torture reports, and Russell Brand punching Nigel Farage on Question Time: the frontier of what truly matters for our society and culture right now has been placed squarely in front of a bowl of cereal. And some stupid fucking hipster is charging £3.50 for it.

Initially, when reports of the cereal cafe emerged, I thought: aha! Another manifestation of the dread force of infantilisation today. All the sirens were being tripped off. One, hipsters are children. Credit to Sam Kriss for this line: Shoreditch isn’t a real place, it’s an extra-territorial dependency shared between EuroDisney and Hell. Ostensibly an ‘area’ of ‘the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’, Shoreditch is actually more like a hipster theme park: a magical fantasy land populated by Steampunk locksmiths; horrible street art bearing trite messages declaring our universal humanity; a shopping mall made up of shipping containers where all the shop’s names are rendered in hashtag form; and people with dyed grey hair wearing necklaces displaying their twitter handles. Real adults could not live in Shoreditch and thrive, they could not breathe its air. It is a place that could only possibly exist if enough people congregated there whose lack of real-world responsibilities allowed them to do things like open cafes that only sell cereal. And, true to form, aside from having set up such a cafe, the cereal cafe’s owners are two twin brothers who actually seem to make a point of dressing and looking exactly the same: something only real adults would do if it was part of some sort of fetish where they only have sex with the same person simultaneously.
Two: the cafe itself, positioned as it is within this Peter Pan Republic, sells itself (quite fittingly) explicitly on childhood nostalgia: the whole place is decorated with promotional toys that you could have got with cereal in the early 90s, and old (especially limited edition) cereal boxes, most frequently ones produced as tie-ins with blockbuster films. And, just as with all infantile nostalgia as utilised in capitalist enterprise, the objects are presented simply as something to remember for fun: there is no sense of how they haunt us. It is never acknowledged how the vintage Weetabix plush toys they’ve placed on a shelf downstairs have a look on their face like they’re going to beat you up; objects like the The Mask pencil-toppers you used to get free in bowls of Shreddies are presented simply as collectibles, not as the sort of thing that were always with you in childhood, accompanying you through every classroom trauma and defeat, because they’d worm their way into the bottom of your pencil case and stay there, festering and never acknowledged until ultimately – but only when you change pencil cases – disposed of.
Thirdly, cereal itself, considered as the sort of product that might be sold in a restaurant, can only really be a food for children. OK, there are breakfast cereals like Bran Flakes, Weetabix, Muesli, etc. that adults eat. But you can buy these in shops and just put milk on them for a lot less than £3.50 for a bowl. The only way that the cereal cafe could possibly succeed as more than a gimmick is by marketing itself as selling rare exported cereal that you can’t get anywhere else: effectively, by Craft Beerifying cereal. But whereas Craft Beer manages to be something not just for pathetic nerds by virtue of the fact that there really is a lot of difference between, say, an exported seasonal Doppelbock brewed by the Royal and Ancient Liechtenstein Guild of Haberdashers and whatever is generally available in the supermarket, the only real variety in cereal exists heavily weighted to the sickly, sugary end of things. It’s in wheat bits thickly coated with sugar frosting and honey mixed with chocolate flakes and marshmallow, or white puffs full of strawberry sauce: the sort of thing explicitly designed for juvenile taste buds that find spinach bitter as poison. Adults typically can’t eat stuff like this except as a pretense, or out of some desperately misguided attempt to avoid self-knowledge of their hypoglycemic blood disorder.

And yet, thoroughly infantile though the cereal cafe may be, there is nevertheless a real difference between it and, say, a thing on some napkins that says “Please take only one of me,” or a thing on a shopping trolley that says “If you find me please help me get home by calling this number.” Or even the cafe that’s full of kittens for patrons to hug that the cereal cafe is opening up down the road from. That’s because all those things, however the dark the force of the thing that they’re manifesting is, largely pass in the broader discourse as being innocuous. In particular, people don’t really take all that much notice of how infantilising strategies are used by the government and/or big corporations to deliver information. But the cereal cafe seems to have made people angry. It became a big news story in large part because the idea just seems so ridiculous to people. “A cafe full of cereal,” they think. “It has to be a gimmick. Don’t these people know they’re going to fail? Who are these stupid fucking hipsters?An interview with Channel 4 news, riding this trend, exacerbated matters by implying that the cereal cafe is directly responsible in some way for the economic problems faced by a large portion of the residents of Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country.
But really that interview just got me thinking: why the cereal cafe? The interviewer must know that he’s on Brick Lane, where even the stuff that isn’t obviously stupid just in-itself is probably too expensive for the desperate, starving family of 12 that he’s imagining in his mind’s eye. Why not go up to every cafe in the area and ask them the same question? Or indeed head to Canary Wharf – also in Tower Hamlets – and ask the evil cabal of international financiers and shape-shifting space-lizards who make their home there what they’re doing for a local area (aside from using their proboscis to drain it of nutrients). The most revealing thing about the interview was not that co-owner Gary Keery was exposed as a gentrifying, capitalist stooge but rather that he just had no fucking clue that he was in an area that had anything in particular to do with urban poverty. Which isn’t surprising because, as my line of thinking goes, he’s essentially a child.

So then the question is: why does the cereal cafe make people angry, more than any of the other infantilising things in the world? This was the question that I was looking for an answer to when I visited the cereal cafe this Saturday, some four days into its period of being open on this earth.
The first thing anyone visiting has to notice about the cereal cafe is that (at least at the time of writing), it takes ages to get in. The queue stretched around the block past the expensive chocolate shop next door (the sort of place that sells Gin and Tonic flavour truffles). We (myself and Sam, who I was with, as part of the Enthusiasts of Late Capitalist Detritus buddy programme) joined because, obviously, we are both controversial thinkpiece writers who owe to the world our hot takes. We ended up waiting an hour and a half before we were served. I wondered why everyone else was actually bothering to wait so long, but then it occurred to me that, the part of London we’re in, probably everyone there was going to write a thinkpiece on it. At the point where we were almost inside the store, finally about to step through the alcove out of the cold Winter afternoon, a woman came up to us, to ask what everyone was queuing for. “It’s a cafe that only sells cereal,” I answered. Her face took on an expression of simultaneous disappointment and baffled disdain, and she walked away laughing as if from a trauma too horrible to process.
This was only about halfway through our wait to purchase a bowl of cereal: once we were inside the cafe it still took about another forty minutes of queuing to get served. Weirdly for somewhere that was – from the evidence of the queue – so busy, there were hardly any people actually eating cereal there. The upstairs room with the ordering desk had two tables in it, neither occupied. There were I’d say maybe six tables in the basement and when we got down there with our cereal it was about half-full. The reason for this is simply that the ordering system is horribly inefficient. Rather than sitting down at a table and getting served there you have to go up to the desk to get your cereal. You then wait by the desk while they put it in a bowl for you – this takes about three to five minutes – before proceeding with your tray of freshly-poured cereal to sit down and eat it. Eating the bowl then takes only about another five minutes: because it’s cereal, it’s basically just quickly-consumable mush. After this, rather than continuing to hang about the cereal cafe for ambience, people tended just to leave. So rather than being caused by some news-induced runaway popularity, the queue turned out to have been mostly the result of poor logistics on behalf of the managers. Nevertheless, as I say, curious thinkpiece writers seemed largely undettered by it: by the time we got out, it was getting dark, but the queue had only become longer.
If there is any upshot to queuing for half an afternoon to purchase a bowl of cereal, it is that it gives you time to contemplate the baffling array of choice on offer. Choice has always been a problem when it comes to breakfast cereal: so many varieties are on offer, representing only incrementally different spins on the same basic concept: so that one is quickly reduced to looking desperately around for the one which fits you, personally, most perfectly – like Mr Burns in the Monstromart trying to locate the Burns-Os. At the cereal cafe, this problem is magnified, not just because they have a much larger amount of cereals on offer than at the supermarket – mostly they’re imported from the United States (you can get UK cereals too but really, really why would you not just buy your own box of Rice Krispies? Why would you go here and queue for this?) – but because, since you’re going to a cafe just to get served a bowl of cereal, you especially want to get this consumer decision right. Compounding the problem of choice, the cafe further offers a wide range of different toppings (chocolate flakes and so forth, but also fresh fruit) and varieties of milk (banana, strawberry, almond, oat, etc.). They also do something called ‘cereal cocktails’, which seem to have been implemented in a desperate attempt to make it seem like the cafe is offering anything in terms of professional expertise beyond the service of putting something from a box into a bowl (they even make you pour the milk yourself). But then, one of the cocktails is bran flakes, granola and raisins (spelt ‘raisans’, presumably as some sort of wilfully terrible example to the local area), which really does just amount to their having re-invented Fruit & Fibre.
Eventually, Sam opted for a ‘Peanut Butter Jelly Time’ cocktail, which contains Cap’N Crunch Peanut Butter cereal, some sort of Strawberry Pop Tart cereally stuff, and peanut flakes, served with whole milk. I got a medium-sized bowl of an American cereal called ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’, which from the evidence of the box we thought might be a cereal which is made up of little bits of toast, but was actually just cinnamon-flavoured wheat flakes (disappointing). I got it served topped with peanut M&Ms, as can be seen in the picture below:

cereal

(because obviously M&Ms have to dominate every aspect of my own life in order for my hypothesis about them to turn out to be true)

The ‘cocktail’ was absolutely foul: despite the presence of two peanut-flavoured items, it tasted overwhelmingly of ersatz strawberry sweetness, which failed utterly to mix with its cousin as in an actual peanut butter and jam sandwich. My bowl was by contrast was pretty good: the peanut M&Ms went surprisingly well with the Cinnamon Toast Crunch; I’d even willingly eat it again. But whether you got a good mix of cereal or not, upon finishing eating you are nevertheless forced to confront the brute fact that represents the hollowness at the centre of this whole enterprise: you’ve really just paid £3.50 to be served a bowl of cereal. It’s not like in any other cafe, where the mark-up on the raw ingredients is in theory justified by the expertise of the chef. It’s just a bowl of a mass-produced product that comes in boxes that you put milk on. Anyone can do this. The cereal cafe was apparently inspired by its owners being hungover and just wanting a bowl of cereal, then wishing there was a place they could go to get one. But there already is such a place: it’s called the supermarket. You can buy your own boxes of the stuff there.
For this reason, it’s hard to see the cereal cafe as representing anything other than a gimmick. Once the initial interest in the fact that someone (or, well, two people who look the same) actually went ahead and opened a cafe that only sells cereal dies away, it’s hard to see it doing much business. The place is bound to go the way of ‘Concept Stew’: from the evidence of the buzzer outside the name of the business that used to operate on the premises, and which was presumably a restaurant that only served stew. Having said that, there is in fairness a chain of cereal cafes active in the States. Called ‘Cereality’, the chain opened its first branch in Chicago at some point in the mid-2000s, and rapidly expanded to a variety of locations nationwide, even inspiring rival restaurants with names like ‘Bowls’ and ‘The Cereal Bowl’. In 2005, the chain courted controversy after unsuccessfully trying to patent adding milk to cereal. But unfortunately for Shoreditch’s cereal cafe, the Cereality story does not offer much reason to be hopeful for the future. A google search for ‘Cereality’ uncovers sedimented layers of Yelp reviews for locations now closed, and it currently only continues to operate two branches: one of them is in Dallas-Fort Worth airport; the other a hospital in Virginia. (Obviously, the fact that these branches continue to be open must have something to do with the fact that airports and hospitals are exactly the sort of nowhere-places where you can’t just buy a box of cereal from the supermarket and then put it in a bowl yourself)

We are now, I think, in a position to answer the question as to why the cereal cafe is making people so angry. Basically, my view is that it must have something to do with the ultimate emptiness of the gimmick. The fact that there is so little value added seems to threaten to expose the futility of offering almost any other service, as child’s play. Enough entrepreneurs opening establishments like the cereal cafe – somewhere that only sells Mr Kipling cakes, or ready meals, perhaps – and capitalism might just voluntarily collapse out of sheer embarrassment. This of course has to feel threatening to people: there is no guarantee that their own lives and professions will be exempt from the world-spirit’s mounting awareness of its own uselessness.
But that in itself can only constitute part of the answer. If it was the whole of it, then it continues to beg the question: why the cereal cafe? We exist under conditions of widespread infantilisation: why should it be this childish thing that finally sets everyone against the trend? And moreover: people don’t, even in the face of the cereal cafe’s actuality, seem to be widely against the trend as such. People were still shopping happily, and perfectly unironically, for Gin and Tonic truffles in the chocolate shop next door; they were still wearing necklaces that just had hashtags on them. So what I want to say here is that it’s not so much to do with the fact of the cereal cafe’s infantility, and more to do with the nature of how infantilism manifests itself through the cereal cafe.
Typically, when capitalism infantilises us, it does so not as wayward children, but as good little boys and girls. The sort of children who do what they’re told, what they’re supposed to: this is why infantile strategies are employed at things like napkin dispensers, or on shopping trolleys asking to be sent home. But the cereal cafe is infantile in a different way, and I think that this is the source of the anger. The cereal cafe serves food for children, and is, in truth, the sort of idea an eight year-old might come up with (I’m sure I had this idea when I was about that age; indeed I’m sure every imaginative child must have considered it at some point). But it serves unhealthy food for children, and it is an inherently stupid idea, not one well-adjusted to the vagaries of the adult world. The cereal cafe manifests as the sort of child that will get yelled at and told to grow up, that eats too much sugar and has dirty hands, in short that takes a real joy in simply being a child. And this is too much for capitalism to bear, since really it has adopted infantilisation as a strategy of control. It does not want us to get too libidinally invested in it in ways that might negatively affect profit margins. The anger induced by the cereal cafe can thus be seen as the result of it constituting a heterodox manifestation of infantilisation. The anger directed towards it, is that of the good little boys and girls towards the naughty one who is ruining it for everyone else.

Thus, a speculative conclusion: the anger inspired by the cereal cafe reveals to us the deep connections between infantilisation and healthiness. Infantilisation, it seems, can only represent a principle of control if accompanied by certain pre-conceptions about health (about what is ‘good for you’, about what you should or should not do), and these pre-conceptions do not advocate the consumption of sugary cereals. Of course, they may yet involve consuming healthy cereals. And certainly some of the boxes of ‘healthy’ American cereals, seen in the cafe, bear chilling slogans. Peanut Butter Cheerios, for instance (apparently this is for an American a healthy option, I guess in comparison to Frosted Toffee Hot Dog Cheerios), are emblazoned with the words “More Grain. Less You,” as if good health is mostly about melting away to a contented nothingness. We can be pathetic, lost, alone children; we can be bored children who have no idea what we want or what to do; we can even be spoiled children who constantly demand more things, as long as they are the right sort of things. What we are not allowed, is to be the sort of child who eats too many sugary snacks and engages in imaginative play. Because this sort of child, is the sort of child who potentially grows up to challenge the existing order of things. Not saying of course that the cereal cafe will ever represent a revolutionary moment, because it really is just a wilfully stupid idea that will almost certainly fail. But something of its ilk, taken up in the right way, perhaps could.

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